Mad Max: Feminist revolution or two-hour long action sequence?

This is not a film. It’s a two-hour long action sequence.

That said, there is a thin storyline that weaves through the kaboom-kapow clusterfuck of high-octane action. The ideas behind Mad Max: Fury Road is more substantive than the story, which, at its core, contains an undeniably feminist message.

Set in the not-so-distant future, patriarchy has raped the earth into a wasteland. There is nothing left but dust blowing in the wind. The only hope lies in the possibility that women take back power, heal the earth, rebuild the soil, and give birth to new life.

Mad Max is a crazy hermit who wanders the desert without purpose. The only time the voices in his head are quieted is when he meets Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron) and her band of women on a mission. He follows them and aids in their battle to reclaim the resources horded by an evil patriarch named Immortan Joe.

Immortan Joe lives in a giant skull-shaped tower, surrounded by an army of “War Boys,” a grotesque group of skinhead-like youth whose minds and bodies have been tattooed with an ideology that says Joe is their God. He imprisons women as sex slaves and “breeding stock,” hooking them up to machines and milking them like cows.

In a move of defiance, five of the most youthful and beautiful among the harem write on the walls: “WE ARE NOT THINGS” and escape with Furiosa. The “wives” of Immortan Joe are a powerful feminist portrait of women risking everything to escape the bonds of sexual and matrimonial slavery. However, these characters are also all played by women who look like models who didn’t change costumes from their Victoria’s Secret desert photo shoot and are male-gaze-pleasing, clad in skimpy togaesque attire. The only “wife” character who doesn’t look like a typical model is played by Zoë Kravitz, who wasn’t recruited from the modeling industry because she is the daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet.

So while these young women escaped from being sex objects in the story, they’re still relegated to that status on screen, having a wet t-shirt party in the desert, not permitted to put on clothes like their male counterparts, who are geared up in combat boots and protective biker leather.

That said, there are female characters who are not sex objects, notably, our star, Furiosa, with her no-nonsense clothing and shaved head. In a refreshing move, the storyline features several elderly female characters who show up on motorcyles, are total badasses and matriarchal separatists. They come from a tribe called the Vuvalini. Theron as Furiosa steals the show while the titular male character takes a supportive role in what is essentially her story. Max exists, in this story, merely to help the women enact their feminist insurrection. Writer Jessica Valenti aptly quips that the film could be titled “Mad Max: Feminist Ally.”

Hilariously, Men’s Right’s Activists have called for a boycott of the film, claiming they were duped by fire and explosions in the trailer into thinking it was a “straight-up guy flick” only to find and undercurrent of “feminist propaganda.”

Vagina Monologues writer, Eve Ensler, was hired as a consultant for the film to help create believable and empowered female characters. (Take note, Hollywood!) She describes how she and director George Miller aimed to make the female characters retain their “inherent womaness,” while still being strong. As Ensler puts it, “They’re tender and loving, and still fierce.”

Did they succeed? Yes, and no. I think they pushed the “women are strong because they are sweet and loving” angle a little too hard. It’s quite heavy-handed in its visual coding of the women as vulnerable, angelic, soft things, placed in contrast to the hardness of the men. Ultimately, the young women still perform the golden rule of movie-making for “strong female characters” — they can have some power, as long as they’re still sexy, thus unthreatening to male viewers.

The film also goes easy on the delicate male ego by leaning on the theme of feminine mercy and forgiveness for male violence. A wayward War Boy, named Nux, hitches a ride on their truck and later becomes their ally, thanks to the tenderness of one of the wives, who connects with him through feminine nurturing and, of course, beauty. He is constructed as deserving of sympathy, also a victim of patriarchy who is forced to achieve masculine ideals — as women, we are meant to feel sorry for him and to help him recover.

Mad Max did succeed in presenting the feminine as powerful in its ecological message, which takes a refreshingly sane and rational perspective. At the end of the world, when patriarchy and capitalism have destroyed the planet and all the life-giving soil has been turned to dust, will “masculine” values like exploitation and domination get us anywhere? No. It will be “feminine” values like empathy, healing, nurturing, and sustainability that save humanity. It will be through planting trees and letting them grow.

All in all, Mad Max does deserve some of the feminist cred it’s garnered. However, a warning: watching this film is an utter assault on the senses. Perhaps it’s because I watch mostly black and white films and haven’t been to the cinema in while, but watching this film in 3D… The word, “hellish” comes to mind. It’s rated R for “disturbing images,” and rightly so. Much of it is plucked straight out of the horror genre with random grotesqueries pummeling you every second. The action is incessant and has a visceral intensity to it that is just scary. I’m not sure when we became so desensitized that it became necessary to be entertained through such graphic violence…

There are so few feminist films that exist and even fewer that are major Hollywood blockbusters. I like the fact that this movie exists and did enjoy aspects of it, but I wouldn’t want to watch it again.

But hey, who knows how many doors for new female-lead action films have been opened by the success of Mad Max. I have a feeling that we haven’t seen the last of women like Furiosa, and when Hollywood delivers, I’ll be lining up for my ticket.

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and erstwhile academic in Philosophy. Follow her @Blasfemmey.

Susan Cox
Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.

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  • Jelzin

    Thanks for writing this. I had my doubts about how feminist a violent action film could be, but it does seem legitimate and worth watching.

    I tend to disagree with the idea that virtues associated with ‘femininity’, namely compassion, tenderness and communion, will alone advance society. A very large number of healthy characteristics have traditionally been associated with ‘masculinity’, such as courage, nobility and heroism, and are presumably at play in this film too. Yes, ‘masculinity’ as enacted through dominance and exploitation is the normative model most males are socialized into, though one mustn’t discount the many virtues that have also been historically classified as ‘masculine’. Healing civilization will after all take more than just nurturing and empathizing, it will take courage and confidence in the face of battle.

    (FYI I have identified virtues/characteristics as being classified under ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ for the purpose of the comment. To be clear, I believe virtues and characteristics are integrally human and not the domain of any one biological sex.)

    • I also disagree with the claim that people (in general) need to be more feminine. The line “it will be “feminine” values like empathy, healing, nurturing, and sustainability that save humanity” made me cringe. When people praise women for supposedly being all “empathic” and “nurturing”, it’s basically a nice way of saying “be subservient and put everyone else ahead of yourself”. Femininity may seem like the opposite to masculinity, but that does not mean it somehow “cancels out” masculinity. It basically consists of allowing masculine people to be masculine and get away with it. More femininity just leads to more masculinity.

      I would however challenge the view that courage and nobility are “masculine” traits. Of course no trait is inherently masculine (I acknowledge and agree with your disclaimer at the end), but people born biologically male are indoctrinated into certain characteristics by our society and I don’t think these characteristics include genuine courage and nobility. Where in the culture are such virtues truly celebrated as masculine? I don’t see them anywhere. All I see is violent media (including pornography), which celebrate mindless aggression above all else. Sometimes it celebrates mindless aggression on the part of criminals, other times it celebrates such aggression on the part of the state, but neither entity is really “heroic” in my view. Even young boys are encouraged to fantasise about being police officers and soldiers, roles which I as a radical leftist am highly critical of, and they are told that violence (rather than aiding the vulnerable) is the main aspect of these roles (though to be fair, violence is the main aspect of roles in our society.)
      Of course our culture labels mindless, excessive aggression as “courage” and “heroism”, but these labels are lies and we don’t need to accept them.

      I think what humanity needs are human traits, like assertiveness (which means struggling against dominance instead of seeking to impose), benevolence (which means taking care of people’s real needs, instead of catering to their every whim), critical thinking (instead of blindly praising all behaviours and ideas) and bold non-conformity (doing and saying the right things, regardless of whether it makes you popular or not). These traits are not truly celebrated in our society (except perhaps in very specific and outstanding films and books) and are not shoved down kids’ throats under the banners of “masculinity” and “femininity”. Of course, nowadays companies insist that everything have a gendered label (even some foods), but I typically use the terms “masculine” and “feminine” when referring to traits which are given those labels most frequently ( in the case of masculinity that means aggression, dominance, selfishness and physical strength.)

      Finally yes, we do need to do battle with the capitalist class to save humanity. They will not bow to niceness, empathy and “nurturing” or even sneaky gradual reform. People have already tried that (in Indonesia, Guatemala, Chile, etc.) It lead to bloody coups in which thousands of people died and neoliberalism was imposed upon poor nations. In such situations, some (repeat some) acts of violence are justified. At the very least we need people to boldly take to the streets and stand up for what is right, which is not consistent with “feminine” traits such as quietness and total subordination to others’ needs. For that reason alone, leftist revolutionaries should be anti-femininity.

      • Jelzin

        Yes, I agree that mainstream ‘masculinity’ as a hegemonic behavioural model for males is fundamentally flawed in its constitution and hinges on the performance of violence and exploitation, in particular, a desire to dominate, degrade, and often sexualize degradation. As such, I believe there is no such thing as a dignified ‘masculinity’.

        The virtues I identified, courage, heroism, nobility, to name a few more, stability, steadiness, strength and stoicism, as having historically belonged to a ‘masculine’ classification, have been heavily distorted in the modern messaging of masculinity, and this is certainly important to note. Many Hollywood action films play into some combination of these traits and blemish them with gratuitous violence and brutality. Therefore, the embodiment of these virtues by men, even in healthier, less toxic ways, is obviously occurring in a context of masculinity based on androcentricism.

        So I concur that these ideals are significantly warped by hegemonic masculinity, which privileges dominance over all else. This is why I am firmly against the fundamental idea that behaviours must be codified in ways that are singularly appropriate for one sex or the other, but do not wish to disavow the virtues and traits belonging to these categories that are genuinely ennobled. And I agree wholeheartedly that in transcending behavioural models on the basis of sex norms, persons will be able to cultivate healthier and balanced personalities that are strong and courageous, yet also compassionate and warm.

    • I’m not talking about human males and human females, but masculinity and femininity. Masculinity is predicated upon a human male having objects at his disposal to use and abuse for his benefit. This entitlement is the heart of masculinity. Femininity is the grooming of human females to becomes said objects of male exploitation. Masculinity has destroyed the earth. Femininity has made women complicit. Really, the system of gender should be abolished all together if we want to save ourselves.

  • Aaradhya Srivastava

    Your problem seems more genuine when it comes to violence than anything else.

    1) as far as women “Strong enough to pinch, not bite” conundrum, I doubt anyone would describe furiosa that way. One arm? Grease on shaved head? Function over looks is my opinion. As far as the young women are concerned, HELLO? They are Immortan’s CHOSEN WIVES who have just escaped from him? I imagine they were supposed to look like that otherwise they wouldn’t be in there in the first place?

    2)”As women, we are supposed to care for him?” BTW. no one on that war rig cared for him or needed him other than beyond necessity. There was one woman alone who tried, the rest didn’t give a fuck. So I don’t know how that translates into a message about women being obligated to care because their ovaries tell them to. Even if that is true, by your own admission, the man had been a victim of patriarchy and power, and if that is what Feminism is fighting for, why is helping him out such a bad thing?

    3) You cop the fuck out when you say “It deserves some of the feminist cred it’s been given.” Undermining the whole article and the 2 frivolous points it tried to make while discussing feminism. You then move on to rant about the violence and the hellish experience it provided.

    I appreciate a discussion on the merits and demerits of movies like Mad Max and the kind of hero-image worshipping, liberation-via-violence kind of feminism it generates, but I would appreciate it to be based on fact, not extrapolation of something that isn’t there.

    • Here is my sympathy for male victims of patriarchy: Cry. me. a. river.

      Feminism shouldn’t waste its time worrying about the poor men who can’t cry or whatever, because they have to be tough, blah blah blah. The masculine imperative to not show weakness is actually a social mechanism for protecting their privilege as the dominant class.

      And the red-headed female character does more than just “try” to care about Nux. He pretty much becomes her lanky punk teen boyfriend. She coddles him and wipes his tears away mere hours after he was attempting to jam a knife into Furiosa’s spine. And they’re shown cuddling and sleeping together.

      Forgiveness thy name is woman.

  • lizor

    I’m extremely skeptical that there is much in the film to hail as indicating any substantial forward movement for women’s rights – certainly far less than it is credited for by academics as well as the general populace. Based on the trailer and a couple of featurettes, I think it’s safe to say that the movie does not stray outside of the parameters of male fantasy, even if there are female rebels in it. As the author points out, the majority of female characters conform to Victoria Secret edicts of appearance (With dust! Edgey!!) and Charlize Theron hardly challenges the norms for wank fodder, shaved head or no.

    To me this is a redux of many of the low-rent styles of the late 60s into the 70s with hot girls getting theirs back on male oppressors.

    I find it depressing that such thin gruel as replacing the conventional boring male action figures with conventional female action figures is received with such high regard. As far as I can see, this is just another facet of sexyfun feminism that twiddles happily around within the confines of patriarchy, playing a non-threatening game of “revolution”. It really does not matter that MRAs are up in arms. To measure progress for women by attending to what gets MRA pee hot, is to waste a lot of energy going down an irrelevant road. Yes, they are the puss-y head of the boil, but the infection is way below the surface.

    It may well be the case that the storyline here might have some small positive effect on the utterly clueless, but I am pretty confident that anyone who thinks seriously about women’s rights will do just fine keeping their money in their wallet for this film.

  • corvid

    I tend to be fascinated by terrible action movies for their sheer alien ridiculousness and the occasional startling insight into men’s power structures. I’ve seen more than my share (the vast majority for free, thank goodness.) Went to see this one recently and had basically the same response that you did, Susan.

    This film to me seemed an odd amalgam of the typical senseless violence found in male-centred action movies with a surprisingly life-affirming message tucked in there. It made for some serious cognitive dissonance. I found myself wondering who the target audience is. Women might identify with the patriarchy-smashing aspect, but the violence is repulsive and on par with that favored by the escalation-desensitized male viewer.

    Another interesting thing is that the separatist project doesn’t work out, their land was poisoned and rendered uninhabitable. Possible message: you can try to escape patriarchy but it won’t work out, so best go back and try to reform it?

    How hilarious that MRAs are up in arms about this!  A rare situation where they get a small window into how women feel in regards to action films. Think of the sheer number of films that glorify male ruthlessness and the objectification and exploitation of women.

    • corvid

      I have to say too that Charlize Theron is quite riveting in the role of the de-sexualized and indefatigable Furiosa. I wish her character had been better developed. Theron is brave for taking on roles like this and also playing Aileen Wuornos some year back, (not that I endorse killing men, you pedants) but seems to negate this by starring in perfume commercials and such. I guess that’s part and parcel of what it means to be a Hollywood actress.

      It’s pretty sad that a story centred on women escaping a tyrannical, abusive man, by means infinitely familiar to vigilante male protagonists in other films, gets painted as “feminist propaganda” by MRAs. Whose “rights” are they standing up for, tyrannical abusive men who launch full-scale war on women who try to escape them? Men kill each other in action movies on the flimsiest pretenses. There are numerous films I can think of where women and girls die horribly or are kidnapped in the first 10 minutes purely as a plot device! To justify the protagonist’s infliction of terrible violence on other men as “retribution.” Why aren’t the MRAs boycotting those films?

      The bottom line is, I am not holding my breath for Hollywood to develop any real feminist cred. They’ve been too far in the opposite direction for too long.

  • Jonas

    Thank you for writing this.
    Its sad to hear its the typical male gaze looking women on screen and these stupid scenes you mentions, this seem to also be more of an issue with US films than from many other places in the world where films also are made, but I’m happy to hear the story, well the story there is, seems to come with better messages than they usually do out of Hollywood these days.

    I was not so eager when I first heard about a re-make of Mad Max mostly because I’m a bit tired that Hollywood seems to have ran out of ideas and is re-making and/or re-hashing everything from their line-up of movies usually making them way worse than the originals.

    Anyway, this review/article makes me want to watch this now 🙂

    Thank you.

  • I have no desire to see this movie, because two hour truck chase across the desert. I’ve seen the first three films and I get the idea. However, I’ve been surprised at all the comments about feminist content, so I’ve been googling around, reading reviews. I’m not surprised that there are strong female characters – there were plenty in the last film, too, and a really impressive warrior woman in the second one. The wife in the first one wasn’t too bad, either. And I’m not surprised that Max isn’t the main character – he wasn’t in the last two, either. He’s a witness to other people’s stories.

    But how can a violent movie be feminist? ??? ??

    At any rate, I want to link to this one blog post that praised the female characters, then pointed out that the strongest character arc was a male character (Nux) (not that you need the hero to have a character arc, but if you do, it’s usually the most important character), so the story is ultimately about toxic masculinity, and the women serve as contrast to that. (If I’ve got the argument right.)

    So now I don’t feel bad again about not seeing it.

    Here’s the link: http://wrongquestions.blogspot.co.il/2015/05/mad-max-fury-road.html

    • ashley

      Nux is a very minor character in the movie. Although its probably true that he has the most character development, its really only because his character is the only one who has any development at all. This is not exactly a movie heavy on plot. As a minor character who “switches sides”, he is the only one who isn’t the exact same person at the end of the movie as they were at the beginning.
      Many people do think violence is inherently anti feminist, but i personally am not one of them. This movie is one of the only ones i have ever seen where every woman is portrayed as competent and strong. Even the wives are not shown as damsels in distress in need of saving, they are capable women in the middle of saving themselves when max stumbles upon them. He adds his skills to the mix for sure, but never is it even remotely implied that they needed him. And its not like the beautiful women are the only ones in the movie. There is plenty of diversity of female appearances, the matriarchal clan is quite rough looking and many are elderly. ALL the women, regardless of age or appearance, are strong and competent. The positive depiction of older women is quite stunning. They are smart, strategic, and courageous. They fight well. They teach the younger women what they know, and they are shown as being worthy of respect and admiration from the young and pretty women, as women to look up to, not pity. It really is a story about women being in solidarity with women against a terrible patriarchy. There is no women backstabbing each other or female rivalry in this movie. It is extremely obvious that a prominent feminist was consulted for the movie, as pretty much every sexist trope that would normally be in a movie written by men with a cast filled with women is completely absent. Women are the heroes of this movie, which could not be more apparent than at the very end when all the women are on a platform being hailed as liberators, and the single male hero of the movie, max, doesnt even get put up there with them. Its not at all perfect, but MRAs are not completely exaggerating when they call this movie feminist propaganda, as a bunch of women banding together and destroying the patriarchy is about as radical feminist as an action movie is going to get.
      Despite my praise though, I probably wouldnt watch it again. Up until the final battle scene, which was pretty epic, I found it a bit boring.

      • Is violence inherently anti-feminist? … That’s kind of a vague notion. Never really thought of it that way.

        First wave feminists used to chuck bombs around all the time. They didn’t murder people, but there was violence in literally destroying institutions that perpetuated their oppression.

        • There are still activists who think property damage is ok (some black bloc actions) but I’m really uneasy about it. I get that people get angry, and I get that they think things need to be torn down (as if they won’t fall away on their own once they’re no longer useful), but it really makes me uneasy. I think it’s better to build better alternatives instead.

          In school they taught us that aggressive activism isn’t what got women the vote, it was replacing men in civilian duty during WWI.

          At any rate, my experience with aggression is that it just makes it harder for me to function.

          • Historical records of first wave feminism are hard to come by. So much of it has been deliberated erased/misrepresented.

  • Some thoughts that didn’t make it into the article:

    So, the whole point of this women’s group is to establish a society where they will plant trees and create a “green place.” But at one point in the movie they actually do come across a tree. In a world of dust, there is one tree. It’s trees that keep our earth from turning into a dustbowl with their complex root system. And what do our protagonists do when they come upon this tree?? They tear that shit up from the ground roots and all. That’s right, they exploit the last resource of this lonely tree as a way to pull their truck out of the mud, ripping the tree completely out of the ground in the process. Mad Max then washes his gross muddy face in a bucket of breast milk, because WHY NOT! We’re recklessly depleting all the precious resources tonight in one awesome blaze of glory!

    Another point: I’ve seen the term “pregnancy empowerment” used to describe the wife character who uses her pregnant belly to shield Furiosa. The War Boys cannot fire at her, because Immortan Joe needs her and her child alive. The thing is, it’s not “empowerment” if the only power you have is through your value to men.

    • They tear up a tree? They tear up a tree?? THEY TEAR UP A TREE???!?!?!

      Well, I’m definitely not seeing it now.

  • Sally

    Dunno if anyone already said this, but I really liked the first three Mad Max films because, despite the violence, there were genuinely interesting and heroic female characters in all three movies.

    1st Movie: Grandma with a shotgun who tries to protect Max’s wife and baby who have been stalked and threatened by a motorcycle gang.

    2nd Movie: The community centered around the oil rig contains many independent yet communalistic females. One is a warrior who helps protect the compound, one could be considered a female elder who is very vocal about her opinions, and the other is a girl who refuses to leave her family just because it might be easier to escape the gangs that way.

    3rd Movie: Auntie runs an entire town that is self sufficient on methane gas. In the end, she lets Max live because she views him as her equal, despite the fact that he helped her enemy. That said I think there are many problems with her character because she dupes Max into almost murdering a mentally challenged man and she uses authoritarian measures to keep the peace. Regulated prostitution also takes place in Bartertown. The second lead female character also ends up as the leader of an entire tribe and has a fiercely independent personality (she doesn’t think she has to submit to Max’s demands when he attempts to force her to stay through violence).

    The movies themselves were already considered extremely violent for the time period they were produced in and many things had to be censored out of the second film just to get it released from what I’ve read. I suppose the new Mad Max movie simply continues this trend, except now that we’re in the 21st century, the violence is even more graphic I suppose due to laxer standards in terms of what’s considered “decent” and probably because of advancements in technology. I haven’t seen it yet, but I generally hate movies of this type that are just all about being in your face, although the first three do have their charm. As my father says, “They were the best crappy movies ever made.” The first two were extremely low budget.

    What I find best about the 2nd and 3rd movies is that there isn’t a lead female protagonist who is there just to be Max’s love interest. Each female has her own personality and it wasn’t necessary to show them in a romantic context. I hope the fourth movie continues with that trend. It’s funny because the third film was criticized by fans because the plot was “too light” since it was sort of a departure from the first two films that were based on Max’s personal need for revenge (or to be a badass in general). The third movie was more about how people moved on after the apocalypse. One group of characters is part of a cargo cult and the other has built the closest thing to civilization. It mostly focuses on the children’s antics, I think because it was co-directed. All three movies contain a female elder that is trying to protect her family/tribe, even if not a main character.